art titan Louise Bourgeois’s revealing Sydney show

Deep underground in the Tank gallery at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in images projected on a wall, octogenarian artist Louise Bourgeois peels a tangerine. She is not a snack but a demonstration of a formative and harmful childhood experience; She begins by drawing the outline of a female figure on the skin with a thick black marker, before carving the lines with a knife and peeling the fruit.

The tangerine routine was a party trick that Bourgeois’s father performed when she was a child at Sunday dinners, often in front of guests; “I’m making a small portrait of my daughter,” he announced. The navel would be left until the end, for a revelation with a twist: after all, she is not a girl, but a boy, complete with her concise penis. “Well, I regret that my daughter does not exhibit such beauty,” she declaimed.

The young bourgeois was mortified; He doesn’t remember if the adults laughed at her, but he felt like they did. “And the pain was very great.”

The documentary clip is part of the gallery’s mammoth summer exhibition of the late French-American artist’s work, spanning two levels and nearly 130 works. As Bourgeois tells the story, her sculptor’s hands move confidently over the fruit and she commands attention as only a master storyteller can. I am paralyzed. In the end, the artist can barely hold back his tears; he has returned to a little girl, hurt and humiliated by her father’s casual, sexualized cruelty.

The episode is revealing of Bourgeois’s practice, personality and psychology. And it exposes the vulnerable core of an art titan who was best known for his prickly public persona and his terrifying Lovecraftian spider sculptures. That this clip is buried in the bowels of the exhibition is fitting: we must cut through beauty, dirt, and analysis to get closer to enlightenment. Further along the wall is Bourgeois’s revenge fantasy painting The Destruction of the Father: a red-lit niche (an orifice, a womb, an oven, or a cave?) in which pale, bulbous shapes congregate around of a table (or is it a table?). bed?) strewn with pieces of meat. Nearby, a spider the size of a military tank, a loving representation of his mother, watches.

Justin Paton, senior curator of international art at AGNSW, says he feels like “the Tank has been waiting for Louise, or Louise has been waiting for the Tank.” He feels like a match made in heaven (or as the artist would probably say, hell), not least because of Bourgeois’ preoccupation with cellars, wells, darkness and the abyss.

Opening on Saturday, this is the first solo exhibition to be hosted by AGNSW’s new gallery, dubbed “Sydney Modern” but still unnamed. Paton structured the show around the dichotomy between day and night, taking his cue from a phrase from Bourgeois’s gnomic print series What Is the Form of This Problem?: “Has the day invaded the night or the night has invaded the day?” (This is also the gloriously uncatchy title of the exhibition.)

Above, through a series of white cube spaces, viewers journey through the artist’s life and work, from her groundbreaking 1940s sculpture series, Characters, to two of her iconic cage-like Cell installations. and textile works made in the 1990s and 2000s in tribute. to her mother’s work as a seamstress and tapestry repairer.

Hands, spirals, breasts, blades and bobbins of thread abound. There are dreamlike paintings of abstract body parts in fleshy pink and blood red watercolors; Sex, motherhood and blood are everywhere.

Then, descending the spiral staircase into the Tank, you are confronted by a series of potent shapes (nightmarish, playful, erotic, tender) without text or explanation: the strange fruits of the Bourgeois psyche.

Suspended in a central position within the room’s seven-meter-high array of concrete columns, a headless golden figure arches backwards as if somersaulting underwater. It’s one spectacular moment among several, but there are also plenty of quieter touches: a prowling cat with five legs; a spider scurrying down a wall; and small gouache works on paper from the beautiful, gory The Feeding series (moms will feel it on their nipples).

Paton recommends moving from day to night, but there are strong arguments for the opposite: probing the dank, subliminal depths first, before retreating into the brilliant domain of personal history and psychological interpretation, which inevitably undermines the mystery of the works of art by Bourgeois and engages the viewer’s possibilities. for a primary and instinctive reaction.

Bourgeois’s art had its roots in his childhood, particularly in the deep emotional wounds left by his relationships with his parents. She felt abandoned by her mother, who died in 1932, when Louise was only 20 years old; She felt betrayed by her father, a prolific womanizer.

Art, which she came to in her twenties after graduating with a degree in philosophy and abandoning her mathematics studies, was a means of processing this trauma and her changing relationship with it (she later had success with psychoanalysis, which influenced her art). . Although he reconciled with his mother (who is remembered in the gigantic Maman spider sculpture, now installed in the forecourt of the 19th-century Art Gallery building), he never forgave his father.

The bourgeois also seemed to have difficulty forgiving themselves. She presented herself as a “runaway girl”: when she was young, she had abandoned her family in France, then on the brink of war, to move to New York with her then new husband, the art historian American Robert Goldwater.

They adopted one child and had two more in quick succession, and Bourgeois’s early artistic creation occupied a chaotic domestic space, in which cooking and housework took a backseat. (After her husband died in 1973, Bourgeois ripped out the stove, cut the dining room table in half to make a work desk, and turned the entire house into her studio, writing on the walls.) She did not identify as a feminist, but was praised by many artists who did, a group of whom petitioned New York’s MoMA in 1973 to give Bourgeois her first solo exhibition, a milestone that came frustratingly late in her career, in 1982.

Nowadays, it seems that the bourgeois is everywhere. This year in Australia alone, his work has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria and in upcoming group exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia and the Australian Center for Contemporary Art. And it is not surprising: raw, rigorous and brave, his art addresses nothing less than the human condition.

Bourgeois, who died in 2010, has assumed his rightful place as a giant among artists of any era.

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